Sunday, November 19, 2006

Anxiety and Servanthood, Part 1

As I've indicated before, I tend to look out for therefores (and therefore equivalents) when reading scripture. They give us an chance to check out if our logic and God's logic are the same. Especially, I watch out for oft-quoted verses that begin with a therefore (or the equivalent). It's unfortunately not that unusual, and the fact that we start the quote with the 'therefore' indicates that we're starting in the middle, and leaving off the reason for what follows. It's at that point likely that we're missing part of the message.

One such place is Matthew 6:25:

For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing?

'For this reason'? For what reason? For that you need to go back one verse:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Now this is a little scary. If 'You cannot serve God and mammon' logically leads to "don't be anxious about even such mundane, everyday concerns as food, drink, and clothing", it would seem to follow that worrying about such things constitutes serving mammon. And serving mammon will keep you from serving God.

Note that this isn't a question of God arbitrarily deciding that if you serve mammon, He won't let you serve Him. It's not 'You may not serve both God and mammon', as though God was laying down a (hopefully waivable) entrance requirement for the Serving God Club. It's 'You cannot serve both God and mammon'. The thing jest ain't possible. If you're serving mammon, you don't have the ability to serve God, no matter how much you may want to. Which means "Don't be anxious about food, drink, and clothing" isn't some high (and, to many of us, irritating) spiritual ideal attainable only by the most advanced Christian. It's informing us of a basic practical fact: worrying about where your food, drink and clothing will come from will rob you of the ability to serve God. If you want to serve God, you will have to deal with this.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Locusts & Honey: Men and Contemporary Worship

John points to an article by Dave Murrow on why "men" don't get into contemporary worship, and I found myself for the most part agreeing with John's criticisms. And yet....

It struck me that I'd have a lot less trouble with what Murrow is saying if it wasn't couched in terms that seemed to make the kind of men he's arguing on behalf of normative, and those who differed something less. Tell me there's a group of men whose spiritual needs aren't met by modern praise and worship styles and we can discuss how to meet those needs(which may be exactly what Murrow's aiming at). Tell me, implicitly, that those men should be regarded as normative and, like it or not, whether we're aware of it or not, the underlying argument is going to shift to who can claim to be a normal, "real" man.

We can attribute this somewhat to the fragile male ego. But another aspect of this, I think, is the framework we use in dealing with masculinity and femininity. We tend to regard masculinity and femininity as if they were each a single, monolithic thing. To some degree, this is understandable, as we live in a worldly culture which tends to blur the distinctions, and in asserting that there is a distinction, it's easier to do if if we regard each of them as a single monolithic characteristic. But this tends to lead to a strict conformity-based identity, with not much room for individuality.

At this point, I'm going take C. S. Lewis's tack, and say that if what follows helps you, good, but if not, ignore it. The framework I work with on masculinity and femininity is that they're distinct, but not monolithic. Each is a melange of ingredients, with each ingredient capable of existing in a stronger or weaker state in an individual. Part of what makes up a man's individual personality is the individual strength or weakness of each of the ingredients that make up masculinity. Strength of a particular ingredient doesn't mean he's 'more masculine', nor does weakness mean he's less, but the various strengths produce the particular 'flavor' of a man's masculinity.

Complicating this whole mess (and it is complex, because a person's personality is much more than that person's masculinity or femininity - there are plenty of ingredients which are separate from either, and it's possible to have a personality 'ingredient' that's typical of the opposite sex, but is part of one's personality, but not part of one's sexuality) is that we're fallen. And to me that means not only that we tend to sin, but that our humanity has been twisted. As G. K. Chesterton put it, the answer to the question 'what, then, is the meaning of the fall' is "whatever I am, I am not myself". The fall tends to twist and pervert the good things God has created in us, making them more selfish and self-centered. This means that our pursuit of holiness is going to involve not getting rid of ingredients, but finding out how they've been twisted, and untwisting them. This is partly why I tend to see restoring a Biblical sense of servant authority and leadership (something that seems to be generally lacking) as more important than dealing with gender issues, as our approach to dealing with gender issues seems to be that of removing ingredients that would actually end up 'untwisted' if the servant leadership issue was dealt with.

With that in mind, I have to wonder if the problem with the particular ingredients Murrow is emphasizing is that we normally deal with or think of them in their twisted form. If so, then in responding, we need to both seek to understand where the twist comes in, which will give us a clearer picture of what the untwisted ingredient would look like, and seek to make sure that the need represented by the untwisted ingredient is given a place to be met.

Sigh. Is that coming across as as mixed a metaphor as I think it is?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Two Ways of the Kingdom of Heaven

Lately I've switched my devotional time to a straight-through reading of the Bible. I alternate Old and New Testament, but pretty much I'm just reading straight through, one or two chapters at a time. I augment it with Spurgeon's "Morning and Evening", but sometimes theres's no substitute for just plain reading the Word.

Today brought me to Matthew 25, and maybe lately I've been reading too many blogs, because my first thought while reading through the parable of the ten virgins was that in today's politically correct climate, this wouldn't fly. The prudent virgins would be roundly criticized for being unwilling to share their oil with the foolish virgins. We must have equality of results, even if that results in equal failure for all. Yet Jesus utters not a word against the prudent virgins. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the Kingdom of Heaven rewards prudence and lets the foolishness of the imprudent fall on their heads.

Then we come to the parable of the talents, with an ending sure to make the politically correct scream in rage: we take away from the servant with the least resources what little resources he has, give it to the servant with the most, and throw the poor servant out the door. The cries of "Oppression!" and "Favoring the Rich!" ring in my ears. The poor guy probably had mental problems: he had a twisted view of the master's character and a horrendous fear of failure. To be fair, the master accepts those problems, but points out that even under those conditions, there was an alternative: handling it over to the bankers who would produce a modest gaim with little risk. His weaknesses are accepted, but aren't allowed to be an excuse for doing absolutely nothing. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the Kingdom of Heaven rewards responsibility and punishes irresponsibility.

At this point, I can hear the applause rising among the conservative crowd, with assorted rumblings about "character", "responsibility" and "discipline". And that's ok.

And yet....

And yet....

The next thing we come to, in the same stream of thought, are the theme verses of the Social Gospel crowd, the judgement of the sheep and the goats. A place in the Kingdom requires reaching out and ministering to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.

Somehow, in our modern world, we at times make these two things opposites, contradictions even. The merest whisp of a suggestion that some of the poor and needy may have gotten that way due to imprudence or irresponsibility elicits rage and condemnation from some people. The assumption that all of the poor and needy got that way due to imprudence and irresponsibility is used as an excuse by others to avoid ministering to them. But neither of these are right. For Jesus, these two sides of the Kingdom are one. There is a place in the Kingdom to say "no" to fools who want us to save them from their imprudence. There is even a place to punish the irresponsible. But there appears to be no place for those who never help the truly needy.

Confessions of a Conservative Seminarian: Removing Tradition -- Clarity of Original Intent or an Attempt to Rewrite Christianity?

This post by cseminarian rang bells with me. And I think there's another error being made by the professors he refers to: the assumption that merely by discarding preconceptions, you are automatically prepared to see the text as the ancients saw it. The perspective differences between the ancients and us make that questionable. It's difficult enough to master the art of accurately listening to someone whose background and perpective differs from your own when that person is a contemporary and can give you feedback. Doing that across the distance of history is even harder.

The best preparation I know of for this is to develop said art in the here and now. In my case, God blessed me in this by redeeming my pre-conversion addiction to Fantasy/SciFi novels. Somewhere along the line I switched from "suspension of disbelief" (an expression I find fascinating - does that imply that most of us see disbelief as normal?) to "letting the story tell its story in its own terms". I may disagree with those terms, I may even find those terms horrific, but I'll agree to understand the terms and background the story is based on, rather than insisting on shoehorning it into my own terms and background.

That attitude can be shifted to people. In listening to people you agree to hear what they're saying in terms of their own background, assumptions and goals rather than insisting on fitting their words into yours. You don't agree to find their viewpoint as valid, but you do agree to try to see what they're trying to say from their own perspective.

This isn't easy, and may require abilities that some people simply don't have(carrying multiple perspectives in your head at once and keeping them straight isn't something everyone can do). But for those of us that can acquire it, this is a remarkably useful skill, profitable in a multitude of different areas. I at times wonder if you see this reflected in the introduction to the Psalms:
for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young --
let the wise listen and add to their learning
and let the discerning get guidance --
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise. (Pr 1:2-6 NIV)

If nothing else, this skill is invaluable if you end up involved in any way with counselling.

I can't give step-by-step instructions on learning this (because I didn't learn it that way), but Rule 1 is that miscommunication is extraordinarily easy, and can't be cured by precision of speech (as valuable as that is). You have to learn to spot the small clues that tell you that what you're hearing isn't what the speaker is trying to say, and let that alert you to check for background, assumption, perspective or terminological differences between you and the speaker, or to just plain ask for correction. Other than that, ask God to teach you and dive in. You'll make plenty of mistakes, but you'll learn from them. Along the way, you'll also get a much clearer idea of where your own particular perspective comes from (how can you contrast your perspective and the speaker's if you don't know where you're coming from?). You'll get a feel for how ordinary people communicate (which is often quite different from how scholars communicate). You'll learn to combine precision of concept with the imprecise way people often use words. And you'll figure out that sometimes you'll just have to admit you don't know, and wait for what it takes to give you clarity.

And you'll be much better prepared to read across those historical distances and actualy have a stab at getting what the ancients would have gotten out of it(not to mention following what the writer was getting at).

Sunday, June 18, 2006

What's gone wrong with the Left?

Ayeeee! It's been too long since I've posted. I'll admit, I started a post on the relationship between "You can't serve God and Mammon" and "Don't be anxious about you will eat and wear", and found the topic became rather large for just one post. I'm still working on it, and will post when I've got it down to non-novel length.

Meanwhile.....Yesterday Not long ago A while back, I went to a Ken Medema concert. Ken is one of my favorite musicans from back in the Jesus Music era (I've still got a couple of his vinyl albums from that era). Ken's theme for the concert was heroes. One of the heroes described, Bill Campbell, was a civil rights leader. The situation was the aftermath of a clash between a civil rights group and some Klansmen, which resulted in the death of a Klansman. In this situation, though having 'every right' to be resentul, Bill Campbell was able to go to the widow of the slain Klansman and sincerely say "If there's anything I can do to help, let me know." In the midst of the civil rights conflict, he waa able to hang on to the truth of forgiveness.

As Ken was telling this it hit me that what seems to have gone wrong with the current "Left" is that they've lost touch with the truth of forgiveness. With the original civil rights leaders, there was room for forgiveness of the bigots and racists who opposed them. As I look at the actions of the current "Left" who claim to be the successors of the original civil rights movement, I don't see that insight. Whatever the pluses and minuses (and I know there are some who only see minuses) of President Bush, when you see the left in general comfortably, proudly, and aggressively proclaiming, by word and deed, their hatred of President Bush and others who they see as opponents, it's hard to believe the truth of forgiveness is much in view.

Now in some ways that might sound a little odd coming from an admittedly conservative writer. You might think I'm just making another "Look how bad the left is" argument, but it's more like I'm saying that the left has lost something that would make them more effective. While I disagree with a lot of what the left has to say nowadays, I think we need some people who fill a roughly 'leftist' position in life (perhaps more like what has been called an 'old-style liberal' than what we have now, but we still need them). As I've put it before in another context: "There are some people who think that if you're in business, you automatically must be an evil person motivated solely by greed. They're wrong, but they do make a good counterpoint to those who think that if you're in business, you automatically must be a saint whose opponents are motivated solely by envy." Those of us who (rightly) insist that there are real moral absolutes in the world that you ultimately can't get around probably need some people around who will make us remember that there is a merciful side to the God who set up those absolutes. It just seems a bit strange that the people claiming to be on the merciful side are forgetting to show mercy and forgiveness towards those with whom they disagree.

Ken has a song about Ananias being called by God to visit Saul (Acts 9:10-17), at the time when Saul was widely known as the most active persecutor of the Church. Ananias balks at first, then goes. As Ananias enters the house where Saul was staying, the first thing out of his mouth was " Brother Saul". As Ken puts it in concert: "Did you hear that? I called him brother! Do you realize the theological implications of calling my worst enemy 'Brother'?!" Later in concert he brings out that we may have Sauls waiting out there for us, enemies who we'll have to go to and call 'Brother'. Saul might be Nicaraguan, or Red Chinese, or any of a whole litany of people we might see as enemies. What the current left seems to have forgotten is that for some people, Saul might be a Republican, or work for Haliburton or even like Anne Coulter. Until they remember this, I have my doubts about what worthwhile change they might bring about.